Drinking in Korea can be cheap.
It doesn’t qualify as dirt cheap – Southeast Asia takes the prize for that one – but as long as you’re drinking the local brew, it’s not going to break your bank.
There’s a catch, of course – notice that I said ‘local brew.’
When I first got to Korea, I was blown away by everything, including the beer. During this honeymoon phase, I was warned repeatedly that these feelings would not last for long. Soon, they told me, I would feel the wrath of the Korean beer hangover.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “It’s not that bad.”
I was wrong. It is that bad.
Sometime towards the end of November of 2010, I had my Worst Hangover Ever. In a burst of sudden clarity, I understood why foreigners have nick-named the two most popular Korean beer brands:
Hite = sHITE
Cass = ASS
I don’t know what they put in that shit, but it’s awful. Don’t even get me started on that time I drank a Cass Lemon, thinking it would be kind of like a Corona. (For the record – It tasted like it was flavored with the citrus air freshener we’ve got in the bathroom.)
There are a few other options if you want to grab a local drink in Korea, but they aren’t great.
First, you have soju, which comes in a green bottle and is sold everywhere for 1,000 – 3,000 won. Bars often serve flavored soju in syrupy varieties like peach, cherry, or kiwi. In a spectacular attempt to dress mutton up as lamb, you can also find soju slushies.
While these concoctions might sound promising, they are only going to put you on the path to the Worst Hangover Ever.
Second, you have somak, a mixture of beer and soju guaranteed to wake up your gag reflex. It is heinous. I don’t understand why it exists.
Third, there’s makgeolli, which is like a Korean rice wine. In our town, there are two main kinds of makgeolli – I call them ‘regular’ and ‘corn.’ And no, I can’t tell the difference. You drink it out of bowls, not cups, and it’s usually slightly fizzy. It’s not terrible, but I don’t exactly relish it the way I do a glass of wine with my girlfriends or a frosty beer on a hot summer day. At less than $4 per liter, it’s still a viable option.
There are a smattering of other local options, but the big three are beer, soju, and makgeolli.
And whether you’re a frequent drinker or not, those options get old fast.
So what’s a thirsty expat to do?
When the Spring Beer Fest in Seoul popped onto our radar, Jared and I were keen to go. The prospect of imported tastes at domestic prices was enough to entice us to Seoul on a rainy Saturday in April.
And we weren’t the only ones. Foreigners were crawling out of the woodwork for the opportunity to try some craft beers.
Oh, and there were free samples. That probably helped.
About ten bars in the Haebongchon/Gyeongridan area of Seoul (near foreigner’s haven Itaewon) played host to the event. A different brewer was set up in each bar, all of which were within walking distance of each other.
Between the tasty free samples and the drink specials, we spent about 20,000 won between us – less than $20.
Until we got to Craftworks, that is. Craftworks is one of those mythical places I’d heard about, but never seen. They make their own beer and serve up a smorgasboard of western-style food to boot. We ran into a friend, Caitlin, from our 2010 EPIK orientation and settled in for the evening.
Don’t get me wrong – I like Korean food, but sometimes you crave a taste of home. So when Caitlin slipped away to the bar and ordered this, that craving was fulfilled:
There were also a few of these consumed. They’re technically ‘take-home’ beers, but we shared them at the table. For about 17,000 won per liter, it’s more expensive than a pitcher of Hite, but not as pricey as imported drinks.
I assume this sign was a joke, but I’m not sure. People were really serious about their beer.
After Craftworks, it stopped being about beer and we segued straight into Western gluttony. I haven’t seen muenster or pepper jack cheese since I’ve been in Korea, so Jacoby’s burger was pretty much heaven.
By the time we got home on the late train that evening, we were exhausted. Stuffing yourself with beer, burgers and nachos is hard work, especially when you’re out of practice.
But man, oh man, it was worth it.